Two American teenagers of South Asian heritage have made spelling history by becoming the first co-winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in more than half a century.
Ansun Sujoe, 13, and Sriram Hathwar, 14, hoisted the glittering gold cup together after they saw off 10 other finalists before taking turns to exhaust the competition’s demanding word list.
In the nail-biting finale, Hathwar correctly spelled stichomythia, meaning a dialogue of altercation in Greek drama.
Then Sujoe stepped up to the microphone and learned he and Hathwar would be co-champions if he nailed the last word of the night.
He did. It was feuilleton, a noun for a newspaper supplement, which he spelled flawlessly despite admitting later that he’s sometimes uncomfortable with French-based words.
“Correct,” said official pronouncer Jacques Bailly, a classics professor and 1980 bee champion, triggering a shower of confetti and a standing ovation from the ballroom crowd in the Gaylord resort outside Washington.
The first joint champions since 1962 will each take home their own trophy cups as well as more than US$30,000 in cash prizes, savings bonds and reference works.
The boys are also the seventh and eighth youngsters of South Asian heritage since 2008 to conquer the National Spelling Bee, an American institution since the 1920s.
“I try to study as hard as I can. I try to be true to myself and hope for the best,” said Hathwar, who wore a small American and Indian flag button on his white polo shirt.
It was his fourth time at the National Spelling Bee, where he placed third last year.
“What do I do next? Get back to normal stuff,” added Sujoe, sporting a snappy red bow tie. He now expects to start coaching his younger sister so that she can follow in his spelling footsteps.
Sujoe, whose interests include programming robots and helping out at a senior citizens’ home, also competed last year. Champions are ineligible to return to future National Spelling Bees.
This year’s 281 contestants, aged eight to 15, hailed from all 50 states plus the Bahamas, Canada, China, Ghana, Jamaica, Japan and South Korea, as well as schools in Europe for US military families.
Of the 12 finalists this year, four were girls, and six hailed from families with South Asian roots, a reflection of the popularity of competitive spelling among Indian immigrant families.